Enth Degree June 2006

News and Notes from the World of Wine.



Published:

The Enth Degree - June 2006

At home with Jason Priestly

 
Jason Priestley, the Beverly Hills, 90210 heartthrob, is now a worldly and fit 36. He has produced projects such as Barenaked in America and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. Most recently, he has starred in the television programs Love Monkey (now airing on VH1) and Tru Calling.

Priestley is a savvy enophile who has mounted a "cheeky little wine show" called Hollywood and Vines, which will air later this year. The
13-part series skates through regions like his home territory Okanagan, B.C., Mexico's Guadalupe Valley, and Walla Walla, Washington,
where he finds "renegades," including actor Kyle MacLachlan, making "crazy juice."

When Jason says, "Let's have lunch," he means it. We're at his house, a hilltop manse from Hollywood's Golden Age that he shares with his wife, Naomi, a British makeup artist; a French bulldog, Swifty; and an exuberant Alaskan malamute, Pris.

In the kitchen, Jason decants glasses of our pre-lunch Druid Wines 1993 Puligny-Montrachet into an old-fashioned glass milk bottle, takes one sip, and promptly pours the whole thing down the drain: "Didn't make it," he rues. The next bottle, a Château de Fuissé 1990 Pouilly-Fuissé Vieilles Vignes, meets the same fate: "Soft, past its prime," he observes, and shoots off to his cellar for something that will stand up to the chicken and lamb awaiting the grill. He returns with a Domaine du Galet des Papes 1990 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which I fervently hope will pass the Priestley taste test.

So, what first led you to wine?
When I turned 21 in 1990, I had a girlfriend who began my education in the ways of the grape. I didn't know anything about wine. I grew up drinking beer, because at that time Canada wasn't making any good wines, and that's what you did up there. We'd take road trips to the Napa Valley, and I fell in love with all of it: the collecting, with how getting the juice in the bottle is really a representation of the area it comes from, and the people that toiled to make it. There's always something more to know, always something more to learn, always a new region, and I love that.

We carry the chicken and lamb to the grill on Jason's verdant terrace, where the dining table appears to have donated a wing to dinner parties past.

Did enjoying the wine lifestyle inspire Hollywood and Vines?
The show is about demystifying wine. I wanted to make a show about its simplicity. Wine is just grape juice, that's all it is. The show is about finding Reisling in a Coke-and-beer world.

Which regions did you like visiting best?
In Mexico they're making some interesting wine that really speaks of the region, that couldn't be from anywhere else. The wine that comes out of the Guadalupe Valley is distinctive. The vines are grown 1,000 feet above sea level on a plateau encircled by low mountains, so it gets really hot in the daytime and has cool ocean breezes blowing through at night. Winemaking is in its infancy there, and the wine reflects that.

Jason tosses a meaty bone to Swifty, who demures as if awaiting a glass of the 2001 Behrens and Hitchcock Chien Lunatique Syrah we've just opened.

What are your trophy bottles?
I have some '78 Pétrus and a bottle of '73 Stag's Leap Cabernet—the shot heard around the world.

How do you buy wine?
I'm on mailing lists of wineries whose allocations are very small, and the opportunity to buy is finite. I know people say, 'I've got four cases of Screaming Eagle or three cases of Turley,' and I understand those bottles. They're great bottles of wine. But I try to find the bargains—maybe it's because I'm Canadian, I don't know.

I think it's easy to look at a wine list and order a $400 bottle and go, 'See I told you this would be great!' Did you really have to know anything about wine to order a great $400 bottle? So I'm always trying to find the thing the sommelier knows about and I know about, but nobody else knows about. Like Beacon Hill, which is the Oregon Pinot Noir that Tony Soter, the winemaker from Etude, is making now. Not many people know about that so the price hasn't gone through the roof yet.

Speaking of hidden gems, what are your favorite L.A. restaurants?
For my money the best wine list in Los Angeles is at a French restaurant in Echo Park called Taix (1911 West Sunset Boulevard, 213.484.1265). It's one of those places where the valet parking is $2.50, not $7.50. My other favorite is Cafe Bizou in Sherman Oaks (14016 Ventura Boulevard, 818.788.3536), where the California French food is phenomenal, and the corkage fee is only $2. I go there with my wine friends and we all bring special bottles from our cellars, and that way eight people can eat for about $140.

What's your house pour?
It entirely depends upon what's being consumed. I'm always in my cellar trying to pull out the old bottles before they turn, as witnessed earlier with the white Burgundy debacle. I get very nervous about keeping wine past its prime. That said, at a dinner party here a few months ago I opened a '75 Clos du Val that was stunning. California wines aren't supposed to last 30 years, but this was 30 years old and it was awesome.

So you're a rule breaker?
People think there are so many rules with wine, but I really don't think there are. Does it really matter? Wine drinkers in America are getting younger, and young people are rebellious. They like to thumb their nose at convention. They aren't afraid to try new things, and I think it's going to help break a lot of those traditional rules like, 'You can't have that '01 Napa Syrah with chicken.' Well, why not?

That's another reason people are scared of wine: They think there are too many rules. But I think wine is like art: You don't have to know everything, you just have to know what you like.

It's paradise up here.
This is what I love about the wine lifestyle; relaxed conversation, you're not in a bar. I love having people at my home, cooking them fish that I've caught. I rarely go out anymore; I'm hard pressed to leave my house most days. The furthest I get is to the gym and the grocery store. Maybe that comes with age, because, you know, 10 years ago the last thing I wanted was to stay home. I wanted to be out at the club and the scene and the place that's going on. But now I relish my time at home. This is what Naomi and I do. When this house is done I'm not going to want to go anywhere; seriously. I've got Netflix. —Janet Forman
 

 
Destination: Thailand

 
A city of 10 million souls, "all of whom are actively engaged in trying to sell you something," as one wag put it, Bangkok is a metropolitan madhouse like few others. Impossible traffic, congested sidewalks, sales-mad merchants and a general din easily exceeding that of Manhattan at rush hour all give the city a singularly chaotic countenance. But beneath that outward appearance lies barely hidden a vast network of calming, captivating retreats, from luxury hotels and Zen-like courtyard restaurants to beautiful shrines and glamorous rooftop bars.

The good news about staying in Bangkok is that the city boasts a disproportionate number of four- and five-star hotels, none of which will cost you an arm and a leg. Billing itself as "Bangkok's best-kept secret," Chakrabongse Villas live up to the claim, with just three apartment-style suites secluded behind a nondescript wall in the shadows of Wat Pho, home to the extraordinary, 150 foot-long Reclining Buddha (2 Sanamchai Road). Boasting a private pool, romantic river-side terrace, traditional Thai ambiance and extraordinary sunset views, Chakrabongse is a steal at just $140-220 a night (396 Maharajah Road; tel. 02.622.1900).

Quite removed from the Chao Phraya River and considerably more urban is The Davis, which three years ago opened as the first boutique hotel in the city. Built in two parts, it offers upscale, Thai-accented lodgings in the Corner Wing and more traditionally furnished, but no less luxurious, accommodations in the Main Building. Again, rates are a relative bargain, with Internet pricing for a Diplomat Suite, complete with a wading pool-sized Jacuzzi and a sauna, plus ravishing city views, starting at about $185 (88 Sukhumvit Soi 24; tel. 02.260.8000).

Dining in Bangkok is no less a value. At the trendy Spring, flanked by a grassy, open-air lounge called Winter and a temple of chocolate known as Summer, six or seven dollars will get you spicy soft-shell crab in black bean sauce, or a classic prawn pad Thai (199 Soi Promsri 1; tel. 02.392.2747). Less hip, more casual and extremely playful is Cabbages & Condoms, an inviting restaurant and garden oasis run by a family planning/AIDS activist group (10 Sukhumvit Soi 12; tel. 02.229.4610). The "Skuttlebutt" house wines, made by Janice McDonald of Australia's Stella Bella, are good and reasonably priced. The food, like stir-fried morning glory, a succulent local green, is simple, cheap and delicious.

For a refined take on Thai, visit the atmospheric Spice Market at the Four Seasons Hotel, where the simplicity of the native cuisine is celebrated in elegant fashion amid a décor designed to evoke nostalgic, sepia-tinted images of Bangkok markets of old (155 Rajadamri Road; tel. 02.250.1000). And when you find yourself beginning to tire of Thai food, work some Indian into the mix at the dual-cuisine Face, an enchanting restaurant set in traditional Thai houses (29 Sukhumvit Soi 38; tel. 02.713.6048). Regardless of whether you dine in the India house or the Thai one, on request your northern Thai-style Pork Curry Chiang Mai may be joined on the table by a tender, perfumed Rogan Josh.

Drinking is about the only costly pastime in Bangkok, as evidenced by the prices adorning Bangkok's best whisky list at Distil, many of which are as breathtaking as is the view from the open terrace of the 63rd-floor bar (1055 Silom Road; tel. 02.624.9555). More reasonable are the half-liters of domestic or German draft beers offered by competing servers, all somewhat confusingly attached to different brewery booths, at the massive Suan Lum Night Bazaar Beer Garden (corner Wireless Road and Rama IV), or the French-heavy selection of 22 whites, 15 reds and duo of sparkling wines sold by the glass at the Bar @ 494 (basement of the Grand Hyatt Erawan, 494 Rajdamri Road; tel. 02.254.1234).

Finally, to bring your Thai experience home, you'll want to take in one of the morning-long, $50 classes at the new Epicurean Kitchen Cooking School (10/2 Soi Convent Road; tel. 800.967.THAI). In less than four hours, Chef Kong and his crew will have you sailing through pad Thai, papaya salad and a whole range of curries.
—Stephen Beaumont

The Dirt on Terroir

The wine world's most elusive yet most compelling concept—the role of terroir—got a thorough workout in mid-March during three days of panels and presentations at the University of California at Davis. Organized by several Davis academic departments and the new Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, Terroir 2006 brought together geologists, plant physiologists, winemakers, writers and marketers from seven countries for serious talk about the taste of a place (and the occasional glass of wine).

Some useful points emerged by consensus:

  • The distinction between macroterroir or macroclimate (Napa Valley), mesoterroir (the Stags Leap District within Napa) and microterroir (a single vineyard within Stags Leap). All three frames of reference are useful, but not interchangeable.
     
  • Global warming has major and perhaps ominous implications for terroir-based wines. If the special character of a wine region depends on a narrow band of climate, all traditional bets may be off. Sweden—yes, Sweden—is investing heavily in grapevines, just in case.
     
  • Whatever terroir contributes, it's losing ground to technology-driven winemaking in the world market.

    Controversies surfaced in abundance, though not always directly:

  • Does terroir include only the physical characteristics (soil, climate, etc.) of a growing site, or human factors (winemaking practices, cultural traditions) as well? Keynote speaker Warren Moran of the School of Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Auckland, New Zealand argued that terroir is a social category, constructed over time by people who manage a particular geography; other speakers were emphatic about the primacy of natural factors.
  • UC Davis plant physiologist Mark Matthews woke everyone up on day three by maintaining that the concept of terroir is based on pre-scientific notions of how vines work—for example, that they draw their essential characteristics from the soil in which they are rooted, whereas modern plant science tells us wine flavor compounds are created inside the grape berries.
  • Writer Karen MacNeil offered the most delicious speculation: What if all the planet's truly great wine terroirs have yet to be discovered?

    Materials from the conference are posted at www.terroir.ucdavis.edu.
    —Tim Patterson

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